When the sirens first sounded in the wee hours of January 18, 1991, like most Israelis, I was already awake.
In my case, it was because my two-week-old son Uriel had needed to nurse. After returning him to his bassinet, I sat in my Jerusalem living room, riveted to the TV. The eerie green and white lights of the coalition’s bombardment of Iraq, which were to become the hallmark of Operation Desert Storm, floated up and down the screen on CNN. When the Hebrew news announced it was time to open the boxes with our gas masks, it was time to wake my husband.
Still somewhat shell-shocked from the early arrival of our first-born son, Leonard and I had spent the last few days preparing for the missiles that Saddam Hussein was expected to send our way. We had our government-issued gas masks and atropine syringes, and our guest room had plastic sheeting secured with packing tape on the windows. Ready and waiting in this soon-to-be sealed room were a radio, cordless phone, emergency light, bottles of mineral water, tinned food, a fan, and a bucket of wet towels in baking soda. Alongside the wall, taking up most of the bed, was the pièce de résistance: the “mamat” — a big plastic tent with air filters, specially designed to protect babies from gas.
The mamat came with a baby bottle, something we did not yet have, stored in a pocket on one of its inner walls. As illustrated in the instruction manual, a large sleeve with a plastic glove at the end could be used to pick up the bottle and feed the baby. In fact, the manual assured us that the supple and flexible glove could even be used to change a diaper.
Following the order from the Home Front Command, we opened our gas mask boxes and readied the masks for use. We rushed to the kitchen, filled the baby bottle with formula, and inserted it in the pocket of the tent. Like the rest of the country, we then awaited further instructions, wondering if there would be an attack.
At 2:00 AM, the radio news was suddenly interrupted by strange electronic sounds and an ominous mechanical voice: nachash tzefa, nachash tzefa, nachash tzefa — a phrase meaning “poisonous snake,” which we later learned was the code for a missile attack. Our blood ran cold as air-raid sirens filled the air with rising and falling calls. Hearts beating wildly, we whisked our sleeping baby from his bassinet and ran to the sealed room.
As I struggled to hold open the narrow slit at the bottom of the mamat and get a tiny baby through it at the same time, Leonard taped the door shut and stuffed wet towels beneath it. Once he could join me, we maneuvered Uriel into the tent and followed the manual’s instruction to turn on a fan to keep him from overheating. We put on our gas masks and looked at each other in disbelief.
It didn’t take long before Uriel, who was lying on his back and due for a feed, began to wail. Maternal instincts raging, I sprang into action. Inserting my right arm into the plastic sleeve, I embarked on Operation Baby Feed.
My heart sank as I discovered that the pliant plastic promised was actually hard and rigid, and although it had five fingers, the glove was functionally more like a mitten. Use it for a one-handed diaper change? I had about as much chance of being able to do that as being able to spell “Norman Schwarzkopf” correctly.
Bracing my right arm with my left hand, I began to guide the glove across the inside of the mamat. With the accuracy and finesse of a claw lifting a prize at an arcade, I eventually managed to grab the bottle and wrest it from the pocket. After adjusting the angle, I inched the bottle toward my son. Miraculously, it managed to find his mouth.
What happened next was astounding. Leonard and I watched as our breast-fed baby, who never nursed for longer than three minutes in total and had never taken a bottle, proceeded to drink. And drink. And drink. The level of formula dropped faster than the level of the Kinneret, plummeting past line after line. “Wow. He really likes Materna,” I said in a muffled voice through my gas mask, feeling like the most inadequate mother in the world. When all the liquid was drained, I slowly returned the bottle to its pocket. Uriel was sated and silent.
The next few hours were a blur of confused radio commentary, phone calls, reports of explosions, muffled words, chattering teeth, bursting bladders, and concern about chemical and biological warfare.
When the final all clear sounded, I couldn’t wait to hold my baby. Eagerly, we extracted Uriel from his mamat, only to find that his entire left side — the side that we couldn’t see while he was in the tent — was soaking wet. Yes, while we were thinking that he was guzzling with gusto, we had poured some eight ounces of baby formula down our baby’s face. His hair was plastered to his head and his babygro was drenched. Poor Uriel stared into space with enormous, wide eyes, his lips blue from the fan that we had turned on to keep a wet baby cool in an unheated top-story apartment in Jerusalem in mid-winter. Suddenly, we knew why he had been quiet: He must have been afraid that if he made another sound, his crazy parents would douse him with more Materna.
“What’s wrong with that bottle?” I cried. Once out of the room, we filled the cloudy plastic bottle with water and turned it upside down. Three thick streams squirted out forcefully in different directions from a teat that was obviously intended for a toddler. Newbie parents that we were, we hadn’t thought to check if our army issued bottle was appropriate for a newborn.
By the next night, we had the right kind of bottle. We devised a way of quickly strapping Uriel into a baby carrier and sliding him into the mamat, propping him up on a pillow so he could drink. We ditched the fan because keeping warm in our sealed room was far more important than keeping cool. And Uriel never had a Materna bath again.
Eight Scud missiles landed in central Israel that night; 30 more would land in the weeks to come. And although the missiles never reached Jerusalem, the fear of the sirens was constant. Our hearts raced at the sound of ambulances and motorcycles and we learned never to have a full bladder after dark, which was when the action would begin.
I’ve often wondered how experiencing such fear in the early weeks of motherhood may have affected my future parenting. But whatever impact it may have had, there’s one thing that is clear: my family was left with a great story as part of its folklore, and a reminder that laughter can be stronger than fear.